Some might say the Grizzlies' crash-and-burn ending was a wakeup call to fans who went a little too crazy this past month. Maybe, but if anything, I think going down to the Spurs is our best proof yet that the Grizzlies were perfect and magical and wonderful. The same way the Spurs killed the '99 Knicks, the 2005 Suns, LeBron James in '07, and the Warriors two weeks ago, San Antonio took something fun and addictive and perfect and lit the whole thing on fire. Of course they did. That's what makes them the Spurs, the basketball empire that exists to ruin everyone's fun.
This is normally a place for serious basketball analysis — mulling X's and O's, rotation choices, and Lionel Hollins's fantastic wardrobe. But let me step back for a second and say how cool it was watching San Antonio walk off the court, having clinched a return to the Finals after six years away. Tim Duncan shared a long embrace at midcourt with Manu Ginobili, who did so many crazy, brilliant, and disastrous Manu Ginobili things in this game that I lost count. Ginobili bounced off of Duncan and hugged another Spurs staffer almost as aggressively — with a hard chest-bump, a fist to the back, and a stern growl. It was a hug that said, "Fuck yeah, we did that!"
Why did everyone want to believe in the Memphis Grizzlies? It was an unlikely collision of forces that led us from "praising the Grizzlies for what they actually are" to considering them legitimate title contenders. It helped that they played two broken, battered teams in the Clippers and the Thunder before moving on to the Western Conference finals. Zach Randolph’s career resurrection is a great story that commentators seem to frequently celebrate. The Grizzlies' "grit and grind" style of play appeals to nostalgic NBA analysts who overrate the idea that the ‘game slows down in the playoffs’ even though generating crunch-time points from the post has basically never happened. The Grizzlies are certainly dissimilar from basically every other team in the league due to their “twin towers” model, but offenses dependent on post play have become too stagnant and predictable. Still, there is one very big reason some believed in Memphis.
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
Robert Mays: He didn’t have to change. The LeBron James from Miami’s Game 1 squeaker and its Game 2 loss was not the Heat’s problem. Aside from his two late turnovers, James had turned in another borderline perfect performance in Miami’s loss, and the consensus afterward was that the onus to improve was on the other two-thirds of the Big Three. LeBron James was doing all he could.
Still, in yesterday’s first half, the shift in James’s approach was clear. He pounded Paul George on the block, scoring whenever he went to his left, and showing that even when he doesn’t have to adjust, he can. Let’s forget for a second that 15 months ago, that choice, to dominate from the block, would’ve set the Internet on fire. James’s post game is just something that exists at this point, another piece of his essentially complete arsenal. I don’t want to laud LeBron James for adding those elements to his game — I want to know how he chooses among them.
James’s combination of skills has always been apparent. On any given possession, there probably isn’t a conscious thought about whether to pass or whether to score. The defense dictates that as much as he does, and the decision is likely instantaneous and based on a combination of preternatural feel and collective unconscious.
It’s the approaches, though, that do seem to require a choice. At some point yesterday, or the day before, or in the locker room after Game 2, he decided that in Game 3, he’d try his hand on the block. James’s desire to diversify his game is unquestionably a good thing, but now that the collection of options exists, it has to be navigated. Most players in the NBA have carved out a niche that’s required years and countless hours to shape. They’re unique pieces that fit on any given team because all the others do. But what if you could be whichever piece you wanted? What if you could do everything? James has gotten to the point where he has to choose which player he wants to be at any given moment, and his mastery of that is just as baffling as the choice existing at all.
We’re going to get into the meat of each conference finals series over the weekend. Each team by now has rewatched every possession of every game, trying to suss out what an opponent has done, how that opponent might adjust going forward, and how to adjust to those adjustments. We’ll see X's-and-O's tweaks, rotation changes, and (hopefully) some very good games. Some questions to ponder as I prep for a swing through the Grindhouse in Memphis and whatever the Pacers’ arena is called:
Did Memphis figure something out on offense in the second half of Game 2?
The Grizzlies' offense has been a disaster, save for the third quarter of Game 2 and parts of the fourth quarter. Memphis has scored just 92.4 points per 100 possessions in this series, a sub-Bobcats scoring rate, and a very discouraging step backward after their post–Rudy Gay offense had performed very well through the first two rounds. They’re posting up much less against the Spurs, per Synergy Sports, mostly because they have issues just getting the ball to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Spurs’ big men are fronting well, and even when they don’t start off possessions fronting, they have been dynamite at sliding into that position just when a Grizzlies guard is ready to toss an entry pass.
We here at Grantland love doing power rankings, and I especially love comic strips. Thus, inspired by this "Dilbert" comic, I present the first-ever Grantland edition of NBA Playoffs Hair Power Rankings (NPHPR for short).
The title is pretty self-explanatory. Opinions may vary; scoring is arbitrary. My friend pulled my arm to get the remote out of my hand earlier so now my head hurts and I'm not thinking clearly. My dog also ate the previous draft of this because he was displeased with my Sager-esque, green paisley blouse. Feel free to yell at me in the comments about any obvious oversights.
Without further ado …
Honorable Mention: Zach Randolph
Z-Bo would've made this list for real except for the fact that I would be giving him 37/20 points based on the headband alone (-5 for the very average hair). There's a reason it's referred to as a headband. It does not relate to hair. Sorry, Z-Bo, maybe next time. After all, it took LeBron only nine years to win something huge, and he has a headband, too. (That is also one of the reasons Z-Bo gets the Honorable Mention nod and not LeBron; sometimes we just have to learn to share the wealth.) Good things are coming your way, though, Mr. Randolph — I can feel it. Just not today. Total: -5/20
Chris Ryan: This happened right after Zach Randolph's official postgame interview with one of TNT's sideline reporters. He was respectful of the Thunder, generous with his time, and praised both Golden State and San Antonio. Then he went over to Tony Allen and they rubbed their foreheads together and they spoke bear to one another and punched each other in the chest. Whatever the Grizzlies lack in the aesthetics department on the court, they more than make up for with their collective personality. This happens in the playoffs a lot. You watch a team enough times and they become three-dimensional; you start to notice all their personality quirks. It's happening in a big way with the Grizzlies. You just see them talking. ALL. GAME. LONG. No matter what. Talking to themselves, to each other, to the refs, to the opponents, to fans, to hecklers, to no one in particular. They talk when things go right, they talk when things go wrong. And when they aren't talking their facial expressions are doing the talking for them …
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Tony Allen
Danny Chau: I’ve replayed Tony Allen’s game-clinching steal in Game 4 a hundred times and it doesn’t get any less awesome. Kevin Martin fakes a pick for Kevin Durant, which leaves him completely open behind enemy lines. All Derek Fisher had to do was bullet it to Martin and he most likely would have had an easy basket or gotten fouled by a recovering Marc Gasol. Instead, Fisher opts for a bounce pass that travels at a rate slower than the man himself. Allen sees this somehow, and pirouettes around Gasol in the paint to snatch the ball and essentially seal the victory. It all happens in less than a second. The crowd roars and starts a “TONY!” chant during the timeout. He blows a kiss right back at them. It’s love. It’s that simple.
You get a sense that they appreciate things differently down in Memphis. They accept most of Allen’s feckless layup attempts because one day, when the moon’s glow is just right, some fool is going to bite on one of his pump fakes from way out in the boonies (relative to Allen’s range), and he’ll have a layup so easy even he can’t miss it.
And the fans will cheer because he deserves it, he who has spent his entire career mastering the most difficult craft in basketball, which has left him more or less incapable of making a sensible offensive play. But it’s a fair price to pay, and no team understands that more than the Grizzlies. Allen could play for any team he wants next season, but on any other team, he’s just a defender. In Memphis, he’s a spirit animal.
If the first two games were any indication, the second-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies is going to be decided by the slimmest of margins. A mere eight points is all that has separated the two squads as they head to the River City, and between two evenly matched sides, any advantage, no matter how minuscule, could prove to be the deciding factor. It’s with this in mind that a four-minute stretch from Game 2’s second quarter might say a lot about Oklahoma City’s chances.
In the absence of Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City can no longer overcome its role players’ offensive deficiencies with the sheer firepower of two superstars. To come anywhere close to the incredibly efficient offense they were in the regular season, the Thunder now need space and shooters around Kevin Durant. Against Houston, a team with exactly one effective big man (Omer Asik), this was easily accomplished without exposing the Thunder to mismatch problems inside.
The Grizzlies duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring a different challenge. They make it much more difficult for the Thunder to both field these smaller lineups and match up with the Memphis front line. In two games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has chosen to match the Grizzlies behemoths with his own, but this has meant giving a staggering number of minutes to two players, Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet, who should be relative afterthoughts.
Together, they’re the best frontcourt in basketball, but in last night’s 103-93 Game 5 win, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph did it one at a time. It started with Gasol, just after the second half began. Memphis had a six-point lead by the end of two quarters, but it was in the third that the Grizzlies took control, on the shoulders of their Spanish big man. Starting at about the 10-minute mark, Gasol touched the ball on the low block on seemingly every possession. He either scored or assisted the next four Grizzlies baskets, and in three minutes, Memphis built a 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
From the start, it was clear each team knew this game was probably it. For the Clippers, a loss meant having to travel back to the Grindhouse and a frothing Friday-night crowd looking to seal the series. And for Memphis, it would mean that, at best, it would be heading back to Los Angeles for a Game 7, in a building where it couldn’t seem to win. The result was an edge from the opening tip. Chris Paul, normally content to wade his way into a game by creating offense for others, took the ball to the rim from the start, and the amount of contact in the paint never seemed to subside. By game’s end, Gasol’s shoulders were a collection of scratch marks, and it was in part because of that style of play (and in part because of a terrible call) that he left the game after picking up his fifth foul with more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth.
Chris Ryan: The fact that whatever happens on the court is so grimy, Tony Allen feels the need to wander off with that look on his face. Also, it looks like Z-Bo is using that cup as a dip-spitting receptacle, and the Keyon Dooling photo bomb in the back is Bosh-ian. But my favorite thing right here is the apparent difference between what Z-Bo is saying and what Jon Leuer is saying.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's playoff games.
1. Zach Randolph
Zach is back! Fourteen career playoff double-doubles! Lost his headband a couple of times! Clearly the beneficiary of a night spent in a hyperbaric chamber where you pump in 8ball & MJG mixtapes instead of oxygen! Steve Nash should try that. Right, Steve Nash?
In preparation for the NBA playoffs, this is second entry breaking down one play or action central to the success of each playoff-bound team. (Read the first post, on the Knicks, Celtics, Heat, and Bucks, here.) Check back tomorrow for the remaining eight breakdowns.
Denver Nuggets: Andre Miller and the Hit-Ahead Pass
It’s no secret that this Denver team loves to play fast. What may come as a shock, however, is that it’s the Nuggets’ 37-year-old backup point guard, not their speed merchant Ty Lawson, who allows them to truly achieve a breakneck pace.
This is because Miller is perhaps the best point guard in the league at the hit-ahead pass, a pass most players learn before they even hit puberty. But knowing about it and executing it are two different things. The veteran guard possesses an unbelievable ability to receive an outlet from a big man and then, sometimes even without a dribble, fling a pass on the money to a streaking teammate nearly 50 feet upcourt.
As others have noted recently, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over Oklahoma City’s alleged vulnerability as we finally, mercifully approach the playoffs. The Thunder have lost three of their last four games against their brethren in the West’s top five, and four of their last five against 50-win teams once you toss in Sunday’s exciting Knicks win in OKC. That string of losses is either a random blip or an indication of some deep fatal flaw, and it has dropped the Thunder to a middling 7-7 against the quartet of Denver, San Antonio, Memphis, and the Clippers. Each loss brings screaming reminders that the Thunder dealt away their third-best player before the season, and have since watched that third option morph (predictably) into one of the league’s 10 or 12 best players.